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The Carletonian

Office of the Chaplain hosts Won Buddhist meditation with St. Olaf professor

On Sunday, April 7, over forty students and community members gathered in the chapel to experience a Won Buddhist meditation session and talk led by Professor Sungha Yun, an assistant professor of religion and Asian studies at St. Olaf College and an ordained Buddhist minister.

Won Buddhism is a philosophy of Buddhist practice with roots in Korea. The word “won” is a transliteration of the Korean word for circle, which is a symbol of ultimate reality in Won Buddhist belief, according to the Won Institute. Won Buddhism is a more modern practice, becoming popular during the last century. The Office of the Chaplain hosted a Zen Buddhist meditation last term, and the difference between Zen and Won Buddhism can be seen in how their meditations are structured and the values of their practitioners. 

Yun began the event by asking all of the attendees to introduce themselves with their name and class year and to share any Buddhist meditation experience they had. Students of all four class years were in attendance, and most people at the event were beginners, with a few having some prior meditation experience. She answered a few questions about the difference between Won and Zen Buddhism, and explained that her journey as a Buddhist minister changed a lot when she came to the United States from Korea, culminating in the teaching position she has now. 

After briefly introducing herself and her role, Yun started the meditation with a sound session. As is customary in Won Buddhist meditation, she rang a bell ten times and hit a wooden instrument three times. The purpose of the ten rings of the bell, Yun explained, was to represent the ten directions used in Buddhism: North, South, East, West, between each of the cardinal directions, up and down. When the bell rings ten times, all ten directions of the body are awakened and the body is made ready to meditate. After showing the attendees how best to sit during the meditation, she transitioned into a twenty minute silent meditation session. Yun gave some guiding words at the beginning and end of the session, but allowed the participants to try meditation on their own. 

Once the meditation ended, Yun began her talk by telling a story from her early adulthood. She described her history as a chronic procrastinator, which many of the students in attendance could relate to. One day, Yun commuted back home from college in Seoul with a Hindi literature paper due the next day. “I only focused when the deadline was imminent,” she said. “So I used my supernatural powers to stay up all night to finish the paper.” The next morning, Yun was in such a rush to get to school to turn in her assignment that she neglected to have her usual morning conversation with her grandmother. While she did get to school on time and turned in her paper, when she left class she received a crushing voicemail from her mother; Yun’s grandmother had passed away that morning after she left for school. 

“I was so sure that I would have the chance to talk to her after class, that I would have plenty of time,” Yun explained. “But little did I know that her last moment would come.”

This was a turning point In Yun’s life, and led her to appreciate life for all of its special moments even when we are uncertain when our last moment would arrive. After college, Yun decided to enter a Buddhist monastery and be ordained as a minister. There she learned how to find inner peace and the most important tenets of the Won Buddhist practice. She realized that “our true life really begins” when we embrace the reality that humans are finite.

Throughout her talk, Yun heavily emphasized the importance of recognizing the impermanence of life. “As I speak and you listen, this moment will pass by and never be repeated. This is our first and last chance to experience this moment,” she said. “I cherish this moment precisely because it is impermanent.” She explained that there is a tension between humans’ drive for happiness and the inevitable impermanence of life, because humans attach themselves to moments that have already passed. The ways to combat the dissatisfaction that comes with this tension are to reflect on the existential truths of life, to appreciate the mystical beauty of life and to be grateful for what we have, without hanging on to fleeting moments. 

Students and community members found Yun’s meditation and talk insightful and rewarding. “As somebody who’s not religious, I found it fun to get someone else’s perspective on how to lead their life, but also I liked the teachings and how they apply to how I live my life in my non-religious nature…I liked the emphasis on appreciating the moment, I think that’s a lovely thing”, said Cassandra LaFond, a Northfield community member. 

“I had a really nice experience, I really enjoyed her story and how she learned to value moments with her loved ones,” said Zoe Pinto ‘27.

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About the Contributor
Isaac Kofsky
Isaac Kofsky, Viewpoint Editor
Hi there! I’m Isaac (he/him) and I’m a first-year prospective religion or geology major. I’ve been described as “the chapel’s press liaison” and I love eating dinner at 4:45pm, reading non-fiction, wearing sweaters, and drinking two cups of black coffee at every meal. When I’m not in Carletonian pitch meetings or in religion class, you can normally find me doing homework in the chapel or drinking tea in the religion lounge.   Isaac Kofsky '27 was previously a Beat Writer.  

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